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Emergence Emerges

This paper, “More Really is Different,” may be one of the most important papers of the last half-millenium. It argues that P.W. Anderson’s concept of “emergence” is provable. It may have even proved it.

The idea of emergence, from whence this blog gets its name is the opposite of reductionism. It is the idea that a complex system acquires properties that the underlying parts cannot predict. It’s nothing more and nothing less than a formalization of the adage, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

The authors, Mile Gu, Christian Weedbrook, Alvaro Perales, and Michael A. Nielsen, argue directly that this may mean that a “Theory of Everything” may therefore be impossible.

This is big, big news. Read the paper. Read the commentary in The New Scientist, “Why nature can’t be reduced to mathematical laws.”

If they are right, this goes to the core of the philosophical underpinnings of the way we understand the world. It may help explain everything from weather prediction to the origins of life to whether souls exist. I might even be engaging in understatement rather than hyperbole on that last bit. You may think it’s a long way down to the chemist’s, but this is big.

While you’re at it, expect some highly entertaining debate, and pseudo-scientific whackos of every stripe to start quoting this. Maybe the next Kuhnian revolution has begun.

3 comments on "Emergence Emerges"

  • Andrew Yeomans says:

    I’m surprised that no-one appears to have linked provable emergence with Gödel’s theorem. Since that shows how, for any consistent formal theory that proves certain basic truths, there are statements that are true but not provable in the theory. Which seems a good description of emergence.

  • PHB says:

    Nah, the universe is unprovable, but you can’t prove that.

  • David Brodbeck says:

    It’s a good thing, too! If we ever did actually figure out what the universe was and what it was for, it might instantly be replaced by something even more inexplicable.

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